Middle management is a bit of a juggling act. It’s a messy world where you’re constantly needing to navigate competing needs and priorities. All while maintaining strong relationships with people at all levels of your organization.
Senior leadership comes to you with new project initiatives and changes you need to implement. Managers of other departments need you to collaborate with them, with their progress often being interdependent on the support of your team. Your team members have different views on how projects should advance, what to prioritize and how to execute.
It can all feel just a little bit exhausting at times, can’t it?
It’s more than possible that you’ve lost a sense of where you sit in amongst everyone else’s needs. Having to constantly make decisions about what to prioritize in the face of others’ persuasive tactics while dealing with resistance from those who disagree takes a lot of energy.
But I know you’ve got it in you. It’s exactly why you were given the responsibility of a management position.
In this article, we’ll look at some ideas to help you navigate the competing interests of senior leadership, team members and colleagues so that you can make better decisions, with less stress.
1. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Effective management requires you to be able to set limits. Determining where to set those boundaries and doing so consistently can be challenging. But it’s also a skill that can be learned.
Managers who struggle to set and maintain boundaries find themselves constantly caught in the storm of competing demands. They become known as the person who can get things done no matter what, which ultimately draws in more requests. People will lobby harder, knowing that doing so will increase the chances that they will get what they need from you.
When a manager struggles to set boundaries, they and their team end up juggling way too many projects. This leaves everyone much less effective and productive at everything they do.
A lack of clear boundaries can also lead to a lot of frustration and resentment within your team. And we all know what happens when people’s focus shifts from the projects they’re working on to their daily frustrations… This is not a picture that I need to paint, as I’m sure most have had experiences with this at some point in their life. But it’s not a work environment that anyone enjoys being in. Boundaries are key.
2. Consider whether or not you believe that everyone’s needs are equally important. Do your actions reflect this belief?
Do you leave more space for the ideas and opinions of certain people than others?
Do you tend to say yes more often to people who are in authority positions? Or perhaps to people with certain personalities? To people who are of the same age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity as yourself?
Take some time to really reflect on this. It’s something I have and continue to give a lot of thought to in my own life.
If you consistently show favour to certain individuals or groups of individuals as you navigate competing interests, it will not go unnoticed. Those with whom it’s easier for you to set limits will notice it and resent you for it.
As you make decisions and set boundaries on who to give you and your team’s time and priority attention to, ask yourself if you advocate better for the needs of some than for others.
3. Set limits for yourself
Be realistic with yourself in terms of what you can take on in a way that allows you to be productive without being in a constant state of adrenaline-filled stress.
Setting limits is not a weakness, but rather a great sign of strength.
Put time to recharge, priority projects and important meetings into your agenda first. Then be realistic with what else you can take on. Intentionally leave some space for important last-minute requests that can’t be anticipated.
When faced with a new request, reflect on what you would need to delay or reschedule in order to say yes. There’s nothing wrong with adding a last-minute project to your plate. Just ensure that it truly is a priority and that you have adequate time and energy to successfully meet your commitment.
4. Set limits with your direct superior
You may sometimes feel like you’re being pulled in opposite directions, with senior leadership wanting one thing and your team members wanting something else.
If you and your team are in a state of overwhelm, now is not the time to obligingly agree to whatever is being asked of you and your team. I’ve seen too many middle managers tell their teams that they have to take on a new project because there was no choice, without ever having shared concerns with senior leadership.
Don’t sacrifice your team members simply to please senior leadership. This obviously doesn’t mean that all requests get a flat out no. But you do have a responsibility to fairly represent your team members’ reality in meetings and to advocate on their behalf when needed.
You ultimately need to maintain a trusting relationship with both your superior and your team members as you navigate competing interests. Communication here is key. Have the hard conversations needed so that both the person sharing the request and those being asked to do the work have an understanding of the different variables at play.
5. Set limits with your team members
Just like you need to set limits with senior leadership, it’s equally as important to set clear limits with your team members. Your role as a middle manager is not to meet the needs of every single member of your team, all of the time.
You have a responsibility to listen to and understand their needs. But you also have a responsibility to listen to and advocate for the greater needs of your organization. Once decisions have been made and your team members’ concerns have been addressed, it’s ok for you to set limits with those who are not pleased.
6. Shift from refereeing to leading
Navigating competing interests as a middle manager can sometimes leave you feeling like a referee. The problem with this conceptualization is that it sets two groups of people against one another. One group inevitably becomes the winner, while the other is the loser.
Successful managers view everyone within the organization as being on the same team. When people have different visions of how to get where their organization wants to go, they’re able to help people see the commonality in their visions and navigate through the difference.
They don’t see their role as having to decide who wins or loses a debate or discussion around competing interests. Rather, they use their ability to lead through relationship and trust to navigate competing interests in a way that ensures that everyone feels seen and heard, even when they disagree with the decision that is made.
If you find yourself struggling to navigate the competing interests within your organization as you lead your team, of your team members, set up a complimentary 30-minute discovery call where we can explore some ideas specific to your situation that can help.
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